It’s the Structure, Stupid

The “Stupid” in the title is for me. I’ve been going nuts trying to structure AKMG Maybe This Time, and it’s made me rethink structure over and over which brought me back to what I already knew (DUH) plus a few insights. Of course, I’ve been rethinking structure since I first took Michael Hauge’s screenwriting course in 1993, but here is what I think I know now:

1. Any structure works as long as it is a structure.
That is, as long as you have a framework to hang your story on, you’re fine. Ron Carlson gave us a writing exercise based on a Joyce Carol Oates story that was structured by using 26 sentences, the first one beginning with A, the second with B, and so on. When I sat down to write the story, I thought Carlson was an idiot. When I finished it, I knew he was a genius teacher because writing that showed me better than any lecture that any structure will work as long as it is a structure. I wrote a story once based on the structure of a Billy Joel song that was probably a classic musical structure except I don’t know anything about music. I just looked at the four parts of the song and thought, “Hello.” You can use cause and effect, patterns (Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps), patterns within frames (my fave for this is “Rape Fantasies” by Margaret Atwood), sonnets, screenplay structure, TV structure, Aristotelian structure, anything. Just get a plan.

2. The story has to escalate.
Even in patterned structure, the tension has to rise to a climax. We read for satisfaction, we need the big bang at the end. Yes, someday I’ll do that blog post on how male-linear-cause-and-effect structure is based on the traditional male life pattern and sexual experience and how female-patterned-intuitive structure is based on the traditional female life pattern and sexual experience, but not now. For now, just remember to build and satisfy.

3. You have to have Events.
For me, Events are turning points at the ends of acts that swing the story around; Lani sees them as hinges (see her explanation in the second comment below). It doesn’t matter, you just have to have them, important scenes that make the reader sit up and say, “Hello?” Surprises, reversals, reveals, whatever, you need Event scenes to keep the tension up and the pacing fast, or at least not-glacial.

4. The structure has to communicate central conflict and theme.
One protagonist struggling with one antagonist whose conflict illustrates and illuminates your central idea. A structure without an accompanying theme is an empty building.

So my problem with Maybe This Time was actually several problems.

1. I was trying to impose a four act structure on a narrative that wasn’t suited for it.
2. I had several slow parts because I was concentrating on moving time instead of building story.
3. I was ignoring any Events that didn’t fall into end-of-act range.
4. I couldn’t pick a conflict.

That last one was the real killer. Was MTT about Andie and North’s love story? About Andie and Alice finding each other and healing each other through their relationship? About Andie struggling with May, her ghostly doppelganger? I had to pick one and I didn’t want to. Or rather, I wanted to pick different ones depending on what day it was. In the end, it had to be Andie vs. May, and once I got that, the rest fell into place as almost-equally-important subplots, and I could structure, only this time instead of sticking with a four-act structure, I looked for the Events in the Andie V May conflict, and found eight of them. That made eight acts. Which when I looked closer were actually four acts with midpoint turning points. So I was back to four acts again.

All of which is to say, structure that supports the central conflict which communicates the theme is any structure that works for you. Anybody here ever use an alternate form of structure beyond the three or four act classic plan? I am suddenly very interested in alternate roads to Oz.

60 thoughts on “It’s the Structure, Stupid

  1. “For me, Events are turning points at the ends of acts; Lani sees them as tent poles and doesn’t tie them to acts.”

    No, Lani has apparently not explained herself well. 🙂 The way I do it, the TP is the event that ends the act; from there, the protagonist must choose a new way, because the old way won’t work anymore. So, for me, it works kind of like a hinge, and the character can move forward at whatever angle she chooses, she just can’t go back.

    The midpoint, in my view of things, is a tentpole that holds up the second act, and leads directly into the 2nd TP, which ends the second act and shoots us into the third. I see the midpoint and the 2nd TP as companion scenes, even though they’re separate events; one leads into the other, making it more powerful.

    But still. #1 is the Big Realization for me this year – doesn’t matter what structure you use, as long as you have structure.

    And now I have to go to the grocery store…

      1. Too funny. Aren’t you guys, uh, in the same zip code.

        Also, Jenny, which Billy Joel song?

        Also, Lani, your hinge idea was the only thing that finally drove the idea of turning points through my thick skull. Another thing for you to look forward to in January, right?

        And finally: This is good news about not being tied to the four-act structure. I’m still looking for structure in my WIP, and pretty much the only thing I know is that it’s not a four-act gig.

        Love to you both.

        1. Well, she’s on the third floor and I’m on the second. There is distance.
          I can’t remember the which Joel it was now, but it was not a complex song. The first, second, and fourth verses were similar but the third verse was a reversal. It was a story called “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding,” and the the first two scenes were her sister’s first two weddings, and the third scene was her father’s funeral, and then the last scene was her sister’s fourth or fifth wedding. I forget. And this was before Four Weddings and a Funeral, so I was ahead of my time. Of course, I never could get the damn thing right, so that doesn’t count, but the structure was a thing of beauty.

          1. “Bottle of red, bottle of white
            — perhaps a bottle of rose instead.
            You can meet me any time you want,
            in our Italian restaurant.”
            Just guessing.

        2. Brooke, doesn’t matter where we are. We discuss this stuff all the time. The problem is, you figure one thing out, then you go on to another, and the thing you figured out originally has changed form while you were gone, and when you go back to it, you discover something else. Keeping track of where you are in your understanding of writing is a task. Keeping track of where someone else is is just impossible.

          Glad the hinge worked for you. That’s why I think you have to collect structures, keep them in a drawer, and then flip through them for each project until you find the right fit. Sometimes, the structure doesn’t differ that much, but someone will view it from a particular angle that resonates with where you are at that time. The thing, for me at least, is not to marry any one of them. Structure is one place where you want to play the field, flirt like mad, sleep around a bit, and then pick your flavor of the month, knowing that at the end of the month, you’re tossing him back.

          And they say I can’t do metaphor…. 😉

  2. This is great, thanks for your insight. I love lessons on structure. I’ve used Lani’s idea of the midpoint tent pole in act two and it does help prevent the sag. That’s the longest act and I think for a lot of us, we get bogged down in that one.
    Talking about structure makes me think of scenes and something Bill Cosby said. I was watching PBS when he was given the Mark Twain award in November, and they had different actors honoring him. The young man who ended up playing his son on the sitcom said something about trying out for the part and going way over the top in showing what he could do. Cosby asked him if that was how he really thought a father and son would react and he said no, so Cosby said go outside, look for the honesty in the scene, then come back and do it again. The boy did and got the part.
    This past month I’ve been revising, and by asking myself where the honesty is in my scene it has helped me to find the true conflict, emotion, or tension, and then I can embellish if needed.

    1. Act Two is the longest act in screenplay structure, but not in all structures. My usual structure has four acts that grow increasingly smaller so that my longest act is Act One, usually 30 to 35K in a 100K book. It just depends on the structure you choose.

  3. This helps me so much. I’m quite the newby to plotting, but I’ve learned a ton from this blog. I’m not sure I understand the theme part of this. Can you expand that a bit? Also, how do you work the “One protagonist struggling with one antagonist” into a romance where there is basically two protagonists?

    1. Theme is the central idea of the story, NOT the moral. It can be “Crime doesn’t pay” or “Crime does pay.” I usually don’t know what the theme is until about the fourth draft. If you do it write, the reader never knows what the theme is unless she’s an English major.

      There are two ways to do the protag/antag in a romance, the hard way and the easy way.

      The hard way is to one of the characters completely destroy the life of the other, setting him or her free. This is very hard to pull off because completely destroying somebody’s life does not, in general, lead to a strong relationship. Best example: Moonstruck. Ronnie destroys Loretta’s old life and sets her free from a dead stagnant existence. Worst Example: You’ve Got Mail where the guy destroys the book store owner’s business and in no way improves her life. I still think she woke up a year after they were married and killed him in his sleep.

      Easy way: Give the lovers a single outside antagonist and have them work together to defeat him or her which helps cement the relationship. That’s how most of my romance works. Bet Me is a destroy-your-life kind of romance plot, but they end up transforming each other. It’s a very soft climax, so I had to hope that the romance was strong enough to carry it.

      Those are by no means the only two ways, they’re just the two ways I know.

      1. I still think she woke up a year after they were married and killed him in his sleep.
        Me too! I never got that one!!

        1. “You’ve Got Mail where the guy destroys the book store owner’s business and in no way improves her life.”
          Wait a minute…. it was very subtle, but didn’t losing her business free her to become the children’s writer she’d always wanted to be? It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I might be remembering wrong, but I don’t think so. I know that’s how a lot of us get the courage to start writing, by having the snot kicked out of our business lives. (yep, me! lolol)

      2. Thanks for the answer. Now I won’t freak if I can’t figure out my theme 80 pages in. What a relief. And I’ve set it up the easy way, thank goodness. (My CP is an English Major who points this stuff out when I never see it, so that probably adds to my complex. *g*)

        As for Bet Me, everything worked in that book. It’s perfect IMO. And I’m guessing several people on here would agree with me.

      3. So I’m not the only one! The first time I saw “You’ve Got Mail,” I hated, hated, HATED it! And I love Tom Hanks but I couldn’t understand why she’d end up with a guy who ruined her life. And you’re right, Jenny, he didn’t improve her life.

        Here’s the irony. I had some complications with my fourth child (I know, I know, I should have stopped WAY earlier, but things happen.) So I’m in the hospital with my new baby – who turned out perfect, by-the-way, and I’m going to be there a few days so my husband brings me movies. Three really violent guy movies, and you’ve got mail. Well as I said, I HATED YGM, so I really did try to watch the guy flicks, but nursing a new baby while watching a guy have his eyes taped open really, REALLY, didn’t do it for me. So I asked the nurse to take the movie out – which she did. She also stuck in YGM, which at least wasn’t violent.

        I don’t know if it was the drugs I was on, or just bonding with a baby hormones, or what. But pretty soon I was addicted to YGM. It was the strangest thing. I still get nostalgic when I see it. Which, thankfully, is not longer once a day, as that child is almost 10 now!

        I couldn’t begin to tell you what my structure is. I hope like heck it’s there somewhere. I concentrate on escalation and never ending a chapter at a place in the story where it’s easy to put the book down. And so far my protagonist has been too smart to go back to a guy who has destroyed her life.

        Sorry about the spelling. It’s a fatal flaw. Thank the lord for spell check on word processing programs and email!

  4. This is wonderful. I never tire of structure stuff. It really helps, every time. I remember Lani said she writes to the turning points. I know you are working on structure after a lot of drafting and revisions. How often do you find that you think you have one structure, but the structure changes on you as you go?
    Also, a wise woman once said ghosts can’t be antagonists. I’m interested to see how this plays out. 😉 *ducking and running…*

    1. I did not say ghosts could not be antagonists. (You can run, but you can’t hide.) I said dead people cannot be antagonists UNLESS they were ghosts. The story at issue was a man whose antagonist was the memory of his dead mother. I told the author that if Mom was walking around and talking, even if it was from beyond the grave, then she could be an antagonist. But she wasn’t. It wasn’t a ghost story. So basically, it was this guy who’d internalized his bitch of a mother letting the memory give him grief. To which most readers would reply, “Get over it, you big baby.” Plus the plot was going to stall out big time. If the antagonist cannot push back, the conflict doesn’t escalate, so you need a person there, alive or as a ghost, to push the action.

      As for my structure, I’m really wedded to acts that end in turning points. But there’s a lot of variation within that. Tell Me Lies had five acts. And my short stories often went to different structures.

      1. AH! I though it was “Ghosts can’t push back” so I guess I twisted that internally and took it too literally. Thanks!
        And cooe about the structure. I guess I was really trying to ask though, did you know Tell Me Lies was going to have 5 acts, or 5 turning points when your started, or did you change that later, in revisions?

        1. Oh, I didn’t know until about the twentieth draft on that one. It was all over the place. That was my first single title, so I was going from 60,000 words to 100,000 and bleeding plot like crazy. Thank god for turning points and acts.

  5. I have used lots of different structures, and I absolutely agree that it doesn’t matter what it is as long as you have it. My simplest one is 3 Act, beginning middle and end, which I think of as 8 chapters in each. My first two novels have that. My third novel is 32 chapters with four points of view in rigid 1,2,3,4 order. That forced a lot of odd things on me (especially after one of the characters died and still needed a chapter in his POV), but it also gave me so much I couldn’t believe it. That’s the book where I learned what structure is and how to use it. My fourth novel, I stole the structure from Trollope. The plot went a long way from his, but the structure was totally all him. I learned a lot doing that two. Then my next three novels were a series, and each one had two points of view, one first and one third, alternating in strict order, and shaped as a helix, so that the tension builds at the same rate to give the climaxes and events in the same places and keep pulling you along. All three are like that. Then Lifelode, which I wrote in between but got published after, is a great big ball of knitting, structurally, and I’m always amazed when anyone likes it. And Among Others, which is coming out next year and is the one I had the title problems with, is four act.

    But, I am not the weirdest. Steven Brust, whose work I’ve just been writing about on, set out one book as a laundry list. The book starts with a literal laundry list, things like “remove stain from right cuff” and “remair cut” and each chapter starts with a little bit like that and in that chapter you find out how the character’s clothes got that stain, or tear, or whatever. And it works! And he wrote another book inside out, starting each chapter with the climactic events that would naturally have been the last chapter, and going back to how we got there. He’s amazing.

    1. It really is amazing how anything can be a structure if you stick to it, like the alphabet example, although I’m pretty sure that would only work for a short story. Love the laundry list idea, too. And I absolutely agree with you that each book finds its own structure. Structure really does give meaning.

  6. Question- Jenny, since you took a screenwriting course, did you ever or are you considering writing a screenplay? The movies are sparce with romantic comedies that aren’t cliche ridden. Just saying.

    P.S. How do you get any work done? Any time I have a day off, the TV seems to have kickbutt programming….

    1. Screenplays are about action and movement and I’m lousy at that. Also I’d lose my mind writing by committee. I’ll stick to novels.

      As for TV, I have a DVR and very few programs I want to watch. I think I’m the only person in the country who’s never seen an episode of Lost. I watch a lot of stuff on Hulu, too. Love that site. But mostly, I just write.

      1. I haven’t watched a single episode of Lost, either. Just never felt compelled.

        Screenplays are structure, pure structure. [Which, yes, is action and movement, but action=choices under conflict, so I think you’re pretty great at that.] Everything has to be shown (since it’s damned near impossible to do the interiority of a character, unless you cheat with a voice over, which I kinda loathe, except on very rare occasions), but learning to write a screenplay taught me more about story structure and forward movement and building to a climax than an entire MFA degree did.

        That said, screenplays are a shackle–you have no interiority of the character to play with. You have to stick to what can be seen, and actors and directors get very twitchy if you try to “direct on the page” by telling how a line should be delivered or an accompanying action to illustrate a point. [There are very well-known actors who make it a point to go through the scripts they’re considering and black out any and all instructions about how something should be said or done. A few of these actors, ironically, have become known for a certain tick or trait or delivery, where you never really see the character, but the actor, because they want to be remembered for themselves, not lost in the character.] You have other tools, wonderful tools, but when I switched back into novels, there was this amazing satisfaction of getting to tell the whole story.

        I use screenplay structure tools, though, because they made structuring a story simple–and they’re pretty flexible.

        1. Yep, studying screenplay structure gave me the beginnings of the structure I use now. Basic screenplay structure is a very clear, very simple structure that goes back to Aristotle so it’s been working for awhile.

      2. Thanks for replying to all of us! That’s so incredibly sweet 🙂

        What’s your writing process? Do you have some kind of a daily ritual (a la snacks/music/etc)

          1. Sorry, that was rude. I have no process and no structure. I just wander around screaming and then sit down and write. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m hoping Lani and Krissie will have be a good influence on me. They have loads of structured in their working days.

  7. I think the W or Mountain Plot styles are interesting.

    Of course, me trying to explain how many of my stories fit any of the common structures ends me in a heap of sobbing while saying, “I don’t know how to write.” I mean, I’m pretty sure I do it and that my characters behave how they’re supposed to, doing things that come firmly out of motivation I’ve made clear…but pinpointing Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 and Reversals and Catalysts and whatnot, makes me crazy.

    1. You know what? If they work, it doesn’t matter. Some people are just born with structure in their brains. I was not one of these people, so I have to slave at it, but if your stuff is working as is, don’t mess with it.

  8. Structure structure structure – love it!!!

    The only problem I have is my linear accounting brain wants to impose structure on the DLD draft — which makes me flail somewhere around the midpoint and sob until I get to the end.

    But, man, that second draft is a joy!

    1. It’s like a safety net. No matter how much of a mess my book is, I know that eventually I’ll figure out the structure and it’ll be . . . less of a mess.

  9. This blog is a wonderful resource. I have just finished my first rough draft and I have absolutely no clue what the structure should be – don’t think it has one now because the story is a big mess. There are like 20 pages in a row with no dialogue whatsoever. 🙂 What is the best way for a never-took-a-creative-writing-class newbie like me to learn about structure?

    1. Linda Seger’s Making A Good Script Great is an excellent beginning revision book. Michael Hauge has his screenwriting lectures on tape (link’s above). He’s the first person who taught me structure. He has a book, too: Writing Screenplays That Sell. And he and Chris Vogler do a joint presentation called The Hero’s Two Journeys that’s on tape, and it should be pretty good because Chris is terrific, too. Chris’s book The Writer’s Journey breaks down in detail Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as one kind of structure.
      But I’d start with Seger. She makes everything very simple, which god knows is important when your head is already exploding from writing the book.

  10. Not sure, where I ended up in this post – so here goes again.

    Thanks for replying to all of us! That’s so incredibly sweet

    What’s your writing process? Do you have some kind of a daily ritual (a la snacks/music/etc)

    P.S. I think you’d really love the show “Wonderfalls”. It got cancelled after 2 seasons but its still very satisfying (by Bryan Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, with Lee Pace)

  11. Over on Writer Unboxed Ray Rhamey discusses a seminar by film writer Brian McDonald on the structure of a story. As I read the few steps I was thinking, hmmm, this is the structure than Jenny preaches so often, wonder if he’s been reading her Argh?

  12. I’m LMAO reading this post because I can’t believe you, of all people, would ever have problems with story structure.

    I have spent SO MUCH time calling myself stupid (and other less polite names) over story structure. Of all the topics in the year-long online class/blog you and Bob did, that was the one I struggled with. Didn’t matter how many times you explained it or patiently answered my ridiculous questions, I just didn’t “get it.” And then this past spring I took a month-long online class from Alex Sokoloff called Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. Oh. My. God. Suddenly it all clicked for me. And everything you had said finally made sense. And I got it. Boy, did I feel stupid. Because really, you couldn’t have made it any clearer (which I only realized in retrospect). I think I needed to see structure applied to something short like a movie for it to make sense. Six months later, I’m still trying to wrestle the wild unruly bits of my story into that framework. At times resorting to duct tape and dire threats.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that everything you tried to teach me back then about structure finally found fertile ground. So to speak. As far as alternate roads to Oz, if anyone ever stumbles across mine I’d recommend taking the detour marked “I’d Turn Back If I Were You.” It’d be a damn sight easier.

    Alex has a TON of story structure information (and other writing advice) on her blog, if anyone is interested. It’s here:

    Hope it’s okay to put link that here. I know you’re a big proponent of educating writers, so am guessing probably it’s fine.

    1. You know, BCB, you’re not stupid because you took a while to figure some tough stuff out. It took me 10 years — and I’m not exaggerating — to finally understand conflict, and even now, I don’t get all the nuances. And it was the same thing: stuff I’d heard all along that I didn’t understand was suddenly so absurdly clear, it amazed me I hadn’t understood it before. But I think some knowledge has to be built up in layers, a lot of it below the surface and the moment we “get it” is when those layers are finally high enough to break the surface. Kind of like a little island in the middle of nowhere built of layers of coral, or something. You look at the water, and for ages, nothing’s happening, there’s just the waves and the surface of the water, and then one day, hey presto! an island.

      1. Thanks for the words of support, Katy. You’re one of the smartest writers I know, it makes me feel better to know you’ve struggled with certain concepts too.

        1. I call those moments when I finally get something my “Duh!” moments. I’ll figure something out and I’ll be really excited, and I’ll start to put this new insight into words…and the words are words I’ve heard a bazillion times before. Like, “Every scene needs conflict.”


          One of the things I love about writing is that it continually raises the bar on me…but that’s also one of things I find most maddening…

    1. Me, too. Thank you a million times. I usually don’t learn well without a visual. So I try to create my own. This may sound odd, but, at some point, I have to draw it, literally, on a very large sheet of paper. There is a sort of architectural framework with a roof-line that has more or less evenly spaced peaks (acts) and a taller spire near the end. Inside the framework are stick figures with swords that either lurk or engage one another or turn their backs on each other, etc., at different points. I told you it sounded odd. Yesterday I applied your (and Lani’s) advice to the framework in a more detailed way than I normally do, and it took on a new life. I can communicate theme within the visual. Events are now little fireworks – some with exclamation points. I can see -actually see- where I need escalation, and even realized my central conflict wasn’t quite what I thought it was. In an earlier class, I was asked if I didn’t think this method was a little third-grade, but when I’m stumbling around, it grounds the writing and keeps me from running off on tangents that amuse no one but me. So, armed with a bette framework and my cherished copy of ‘ “SHUT UP!” He Explained ‘ by William Noble, I think I might be ready for some more actual classes. After the “third-grade” comment, I tucked my proverbial tail between my legs and ran. Now I wonder what I was thinking to believe that man. AARGH!!!!!!

      1. People think in different ways. I diagram things out on a huge white board with colored markers, or on the computer I do the same thing with Curio. I need that and the collages to see the entire book. There’s nothing third grade about mapping ideas, in fact, mind-mapping is very new. The guy who said, “Third grade” is way behind the times.

      2. I’m not that visual – my stick figures make me laugh – but I love that idea. The thought of being able to *see* where you need escalation is a lightbulb moment.

        Anyone who insults someone else’s effective process sounds like someone to run from. God knows what else he’d have said if you’d stayed.

  13. Really, thanks a lot 🙂 This was like an early holiday present having this wonderful conversation and making notes on what people commented.

    Muchas gracias!!

  14. The comments are always the best part. You all find the places I’m not clear and you disagree so beautifully (g) that I have to think harder. It’s the Argh People who make this blog what it is and I am very, very grateful.

  15. I cannot recommend Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” enough. It’s a blue print for screenwriting – specifically a 110 page screenplay – and his conceit is that there are 15 “beats” that must happen in a screenplay and they must happen not only in a specific order but on specific pages. Yes, it’s VERY constricting, but I’ve found it ultimately freeing. I can plug what I do know into the right spots and see the big gaping plot holes – usually in the “Fun & Games”(Act 2 pre-midpoint) or “Bad Guys Close In”(Act 2 post-midpoint) sections. Then I dump it on my CP and beg her to save me. Again.

    1. You know, everybody recommends that book and I could not get through it. I think it was just too proscriptive for me. But lots and lots of people have loved it.

      1. It is definitely not for everyone. But I’m one of those people who’s life would cease to exist if bullet point lists went away, so I love it. Also I had the opportunity to take Blake’s class a few months before he died and the sheer force of his personality and enthusiasm was rare and wonderful to behold.

  16. Marly ~ I took an intensive, emerse yourself in writing a short story/novel this summer. After all the previous courses and writing, things finally, finally, clicked. Nancy, one of the best instructors, demonstrated plot/structure with The Three Little Pigs. One does not see the inciting incident (Mama tells the three little pigs they have to move out), then she drew the tent pegs, etc. I finally got it, saw it, and use it. Amazing, how a simple fairy tale or a nursery rhyme makes it click. Oh, I like the stick figures with swords, scenes within the acts. Mind mapping. I like that. There is a name for the stuff that goes on inside my head.

  17. If you really want a good example of “many roads to Oz” , check out ‘House of Leaves’ by Mark Z Danielewski. It would take longer than I have right now to explain, but there is a Wikipedia page about the book. It is truly remarkable what the man did not only with story structure, but with the text itself.

  18. Thank you! Reading this just made little light bulbs go off in my head – figured out how to strew (rather than shove) my NaNo draft across/into Scrivener. Strew is more graceful than shove, isn’t it?


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